If you think you’ve got a long commute, try this on for size.
Every year, from mid April to mid May, a few hundred hardy and determined souls begin the Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike.
For about 4-6 months, they travel north from the California/Mexico border hoping to reach Canada by October, when the snow typically begins to accumulate in the North Cascades.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs through California, Oregon and Washington alongside the highest portions of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. To cover all 2,650 miles of the trail in one season, thru-hikers must walk an average of 20+ miles per day.
Given the scale of the journey, there are a few things to consider when planning a PCT thru-hike. It may seem counterintuitive, but when you’re getting ready for a trip that will take 5 months, you should actually pack less than if you were planning a trip for 5 days. Every ounce you carry will take its toll on your joints over thousands of miles, so the goal is to pare down your pack until it weighs only 10-20 lbs. without food and water. Most consumer backpacks weigh 4-6 lbs. by themselves, without anything in them at all.
More to Explore
Oregon Experience: Pacific Crest Trail
- In 1959, Washington ranchers Don and June Mulford and their five horses traversed the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail.
- Watch online
Eric Gjonnes, a dedicated ultralight backpacker from Salem, is currently attempting the PCT thru-hike with his 10-year-old daughter, Reed. If they finish, Reed will be the second youngest person ever to complete a PCT thru-hike.
“Ultralight backpacking has always been more about what not to bring, rather than what to bring,” explains Eric. That’s why, when he goes shopping for gear, he brings a scale. “People think you’re crazy when you’re willing to pay $100 more for one camera over another just because it weighs an ounce less,” he jokes. But for Eric and Reed, planning the trip wasn’t always about cutting weight. “Since Reed is coming with me, I need to carry more gear to ensure her safety,” he says. They’ll be taking an ultralight stove to make sure she stays well-fed.
Hiking 20 miles a day for several months has a way of revving up your metabolism. Thru-hikers can burn up to 6,000 calories per day, and since it’s nearly impossible to carry enough food to replenish that loss, hikers must plan for caloric deficits. Some hikers, like Eric and Reed, spend weeks (or even months) preparing boxes of provisions that they will pick up at post offices and stores along the trail. Hitchhiking in and out of towns to resupply is a common strategy and isn’t considered “cheating” as long as you don’t skip trail miles in the process.
While the mail drop method is effective, not every hiker chooses to organize resupply boxes. Crystal McDowall, a first time thru-hiker from Portland, is going to buy supplies from local stores.
“I’m not a planner,” she admits. “The stress of organizing all of those boxes would drive me crazy.” Instead, Crystal will buy all of her food along the way, a strategy that has become increasingly convenient and practical as local businesses get wise to the demands of PCT thru-hikers (quick-cooking noodle and rice meals, peanut butter, milkshakes, etc.). Of course, she may have to eat Twinkies and rice cakes depending on shelf stock, but she’ll never have to open a package full of food she’s grown to despise.
Another consideration is which direction to hike. Typically, most people walk north to give themselves a window of about six months to complete the trail. Snow is the concern. Leave too early and you’ll have to wait for the trail to open in the High Sierras; leave too late and you may not reach Canada before winter sets in — not to mention the fact that southern California can be brutally hot in late spring.
Portlander Scott Garner is somewhat concerned about the conditions while crossing the Mojave Desert. “I sweat a lot … and I’m not looking forward to hiking long stretches in between water sources,” he says.
Scott is leaving for his thru-hike in late May, so he’ll start behind most northbound hikers and play catch-up through southern California. Scott has some experience with long distance hiking: In 2004 he hiked the majority of the Appalachian Trail.
For Scott, completing a thru-hike is more about disposition than anything else. “It’s mainly mental,” he explains. “Anyone can do it, it’s just walking.”
Oregon Field Guide and Arts & Life will continue to follow these hikers as they journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. We’ll bring you updates on their experiences online and on a brand-new episode of Oregon Field Guide this fall.
- Reporter Amelia Templeton caught up with 11-year-old thru-hiker Reed “Sunshine” Gjonnes on the Pacific Crest Trail.